Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

Andy and Charles with participants at the first Birthright Israel Mega Event, 2000.
Andy and Charles with participants at the first Birthright Israel Mega Event, 2000.

[We are pleased to share with you a series of essays from Reflections: Thirty Years of Focused Philanthropy. This publication is composed of essays, anecdotes, and photographs acknowledging the many partners of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP). These partners have contributed meaningfully to our success. The nine core programs, which we initiated and guided during our many years of activity, will continue in the future, while not under our auspices. And, in addition to these core initiatives, ACBP has granted funds to some 1,820 organizations over the years.]

By Charles Bronfman

It is now time, after 30 years, to reflect on what began as the CRB Foundation and became the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, otherwise known as “ACBP.”

It’s been an exciting ride, one that few in this world have been, or will be, privileged to enjoy. And, as the voyage comes to its conclusion, the “what’s, why’s and when’s” come to mind.

My late wife Andrea z”l – known to all, herself included, as Andy – and I started the CRB Foundation in Montreal, Canada, in 1985. As children of very philanthropic parents, we thought that while it was well to give to the normal programs that citizens are encouraged to support, we were sure there were other causes that needed personal intervention as well as funding.

The two causes we chose were “The Enhancement of Canadianism” and “The Unity of the Jewish People Whose Soul is in Jerusalem.” They sound lovely, don’t they? But what did they mean? And how could they become beacons in the night? Were they needed? Why? How could we measure their success?

Well, we started. And we made major mistakes. We hired the wrong professional leader. He was an exceptionally bright man, but had no idea of how to run a foundation. And we overfunded it, which meant that we had to spend more, under the law, than we should have. We also chose wrong programs in both areas we had selected. In the Jewish People area, an exhibition was being created to show the independence and interdependence between Israel and the Diaspora. It was to go across North America, but it never really got off the ground. On the Canadian side, we got talked into a province-by-province study about students dropping out of high school. Nice, but not part of our mandate.

Yes, we were off to a rough start.

It is said we learn from our mistakes, not from our victories. In a very short time, we surely learned a lot! How then to succeed? Our two core areas were sound, but how were we to educate both young Canadians and young Jews to really understand and appreciate their heritage? After much discussion, we realized that the only way to succeed was to define objectives that were reachable, and measure our programs against them. We chose informal education as our vehicle. One could say that decision was our “aha” moment.

Indeed, we learned the “art of giving.” Our mantra became “Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan.” In 2009, my great colleague and partner Jeff Solomon and I wrote our first book with this very title and subhead.

The mistakes we had made sat heavily on our shoulders. We were determined to go forward in a totally different way. Three years after opening the door, with new management and a revised view of ourselves and the task before us, we were ready to give something to society. To head the Foundation, we selected Tom Axworthy, former Cabinet Secretary of the Government of Canada under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He then chose Ann Dadson to be his administrative officer. They were a great team!

In short order, the Heritage Minutes project began, which became the standard bearer of a much larger Heritage Program. Any society, in order to be of consequence, must have its heroes, heroines, and myths. The “Minutes” provided those to Canadians. It was so successful that it grew beyond our funding capability. Tom then steered it into a public foundation, which eventually became Historica Canada.

It seemed to me that there should be an Institute for the Study of Canada, because so few Canadians knew much about their country. McGill University was having a Capital Campaign in 1992. I grasped the occasion to discuss having such an institute at McGill. There was a caveat on which I insisted: that my family be able to appoint a fitting number of trustees to the institute’s board. This was breaking ground in donor/university relations, but we prevailed! That board is comprised of one third McGill, one third my family, and one third joint appointments. There has never been a problem! The board functions very, very well, as does the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

I recall telling Tom one day that every young Jew should have an opportunity to visit Israel. He immediately began to investigate and concluded that we should encourage more teenagers to visit Israel. The trips would be sponsored by the various Jewish religious streams, and those agencies that promoted, and ran those trips. Unfortunately, the numbers didn’t grow. After investing much time, energy, and funding, we realized that while our intent was excellent, the route we had chosen was anything but!

I had no idea at the time that the failure of the project would light the way to Birthright Israel. That incredibly successful program started with a conversation between Michael Steinhardt and me in Jerusalem in the summer of 1998. He and his colleague, Yitz Greenberg, together with Jeff Solomon and I, negotiated for a year. In June of 1999, we were told by our great CEO of Birthright Israel, Shimshon Shoshani, we had to decide that very day whether, as he put it, the project will go forward. Despite the fact that we fundamentally had no other funders at the time, we agreed. The first trips went to Israel in December of that year. And the Jewish world has never been the same.

One quick anecdote: We had a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the future of Birthright Israel trips. The major item on the agenda was the proposed budget. Michael thought that I was surrounded by lawyers and accountants who would have gone over the budget with a fine tooth comb. As king of the hedge fund world, I thought Michael must have studied the numbers and approved them. Truth was, neither of us had reviewed or even seen the budget! Michael’s face was ashen. He looked at me and said, “There’s nobody I would rather go broke with than you.” I looked at him and said, “Ditto!”

Since then, some 500,000 young Jewish adults have exercised their birthright and taken what, to so many, has been a life-changing experience. And, more than 70,000 Israeli peers have joined them on at least half of their trip. These encounters have created close and lasting friendships and have become a highlight of the trip itself.

Birthright Israel is to me the quintessential example of venture philanthropy. Michael and I thought it was a good idea but we had absolutely no idea that it would climb to these dizzying heights. Without Shimshon, it would not have!

We had opened an office in Jerusalem under the leadership of Professor Janet Aviad. She experienced the same rocky start we all had but, thank goodness, persevered.

One day, Janet phoned from Israel to suggest we fund a small program that would give informal education to Israeli youngsters. We agreed. It was only a pilot project in Jerusalem and a nearby town. Under her guidance, along with that of her wonderful colleagues, that small program morphed into the singular most important non-government run educational initiative in that country, which today serves more than 300,000 children in pre-K through grammar school. It has become known as the Karev Program for Educational Involvement. (In Israel, ACBP was known as the Keren Karev Foundation.)

While the Karev project was our flagship program in Israel, there were other areas in which we promoted good citizenship and good deeds. Such programs involved the environment, Arab-Jewish relationships, Bedouin education, volunteerism, and higher education.

Incredible as it may seem, I don’t recall any major errors that the Foundation has made since that unfortunate beginning. But we certainly have learned an enormous amount over these 30 years.

When we first started, common wisdom was that a foundation should support a program for three years and then bow out. We may have been one of the first to realize that if one was fortunate enough to be funding a winner, stay with it! Indeed we had a formula. We incubated programs that were determined to have a good future. Through our executives, we would both fund and lead those initiatives. Only once the program had proven itself, would we seek partners. Then over time, our funding would be reduced.

Leverage has become an important key to our success. Whether partnering with government, other foundations, and/or Jewish organizations, our reach has been vastly extended.

We’ve discovered that everything can be measured, provided one sets standards and goals. That’s true in many disciplines, and not-for-profits should be no exception.

At the end of the day though, it all comes down to people. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been associated with the finest team of executives that anyone could ever hope to have as colleagues.

First and foremost is Jeff Solomon. He is perhaps the most knowledgeable person in today’s philanthropic world. In the nearly 20 years we’ve collaborated, Jeff has been my partner in every sense of the word. He’s joined by Janet Aviad, John Hoover, and Angela Forster, in addition to each person who has written his or her own monograph for this booklet. I’m indebted to each of them, and to all those who have served ACBP over these fascinating years.

We have dedicated this publication to Andy. We would never have been able to accomplish what we have without her intelligence, passion, and persistence. She was the flame that lit our day, one that never stopped burning, even when her physical presence left us.

Charles Bronfman is Chairman of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.